While I returned a bra to a department store yesterday, I discussed feminist theory with the sales clerk.
“These were invented by a man, you know,” she said. She flipped the soon-to-be-no-longer-my bra on the counter, searching for the sales tag to scan.
I’d been listening to voice mail messages on my cellphone as I waited in line and had been planning my response to one, so it took a moment for my brain to reconfigure and settle on the subject of bras.
“Did a man invent them?” I asked, and even managed to sound interested. I searched my memory for the requisite knowledge to support her contention, but baseball statistics, scenes from last week’s episode of Game of Thrones, and what I wanted to eat for lunch competed for space. If I’d ever known who invented the brassiere, that information had long ago been crowded out. Brassiere is a French word, isn’t it? Probably some French guy invented them. Or am I thinking of brasserie? A brasserie is some sort of French restaurant, I think. Good God, I’m hungry. What I wouldn’t give for a nice hunk of French bread right now.
“No, I don’t know where you can get a good Croque-Monsieur around here,” the sales clerk said. “And of course a man invented these.” She shook the bra by its dainty hanger. The sales tags, emblazoned with the seductive description “beautiful floral lace and plush padding,” clattered. “Would a woman have invented one of these contraptions?”
I considered the question rhetorical, so didn’t answer. Anyway, I didn’t have a good answer for her. I’d never experienced the brassiere as a particularly cumbersome aspect of my wardrobe (don’t get me started on pantyhose). Would she have preferred the brassiere’s predecessor, the corset? Compared to that, the bra existed as absolute evidence of women’s liberation.
As the clerk worked the magic that would return $59.50 to my bank account, she continued to vent. “If it were up to me,” she said, “we’d all be out there flopping around in the breeze, free as birds.”
She fluttered her hands to demonstrate.
I smiled and looked away, down at my cellphone. I wondered if the woman offered her opinions on all the merchandise in the store. Did she feel as strongly about shoes and handbags? If I had returned a vacuum cleaner instead of a bra would she have inveighed against the disproportionate share of housework that falls on women?
“So . . .” the sales clerk said, letting her voice trail off before she continued. I looked up from my phone, half expecting her to finish the sentence with a demand that I take a position on bras, state which side I was on, goddammit, not stand there silently like I didn’t give a shit.
Instead she said,”Is the bra defective in anyway or you just don’t like the style?”
“Oh!” I said, pleased and relieved that she asked a question I could answer. “It’s the wrong size.” She nodded and pressed more buttons and then handed me a copy of the receipt. She wished me a nice day even as she looked past me to the next person in line.
In my car on the drive home, I thought more about bras and shopping and being a woman. The excursion that ended with me owning a bra in the wrong size had begun with buying new sneakers for my daughters, but when we passed the lingerie department on our way to the checkout area that day, I couldn’t resist the “teachable moment.” My older daughter is about to turn twelve and while she doesn’t “need” a bra, I’m thinking the purchase might make her feel less like she’s being left behind by her peers, most of whom have already marked this particular passage toward womanhood.
“Let’s go look at bras,” I said, and the six-year-old happily agreed. No doubt she viewed a jaunt through the racks of bras and undies as another opportunity to play dress up. The almost-twelve-year-old dragged her feet, but followed nonetheless.
“Why is everything so fancy?” the younger girl, drawn to the ribbons and bows and lace that made up so many of the garments, asked. “No one is ever going to see it.” She had earlier picked out a pair of purple Converse Kids Chuck Taylor® high tops that she was sure would make her the envy of all her friends.
The question had been directed to her older sister, but she, perhaps uncomfortable with the new realization that someone, somewhere might eventually see it, opted not to answer.
“I think,” I said, “they make them fancy because some women feel prettier when they wear them.” While technically true, my answer felt a little bit like the one I’d given when asked if Santa Claus was real.
“Some people believe he’s real,” I’d said then.
I navigated them over to items that were less likely to be found in a back alley on a dead hooker and selected a plain white bra. “What do you think about this?” I asked my older daughter.
She eyed the bra and then eyed my chest and said, “That won’t fit you.”
“I mean for you,” I said.
She made a face and shook her head.
“I like this one.” My six year old held up a bra that wouldn’t fit any of us.
“Can we go now?”
I put the plain white bra back on the rack. “Yes, we can go now.” I took the bra that had been presented to me by my daughter and headed toward the cash registers.
In case you’re wondering, the Croque-Madame is served with a poached or fried egg on top.